Sunday, September 28, 2008

My interview in Canadian newspaper Toronto Star

Fashion's love affair with androgyny hits a fever pitch this fall


London–Who sets the rules in fashion?

Floral prints and lacy details equal "girl" while pinstripes and crisp woollens are code for "boy."

While there are plenty of designers who have made furtive dashes across fashion's traditional playing field over the years, in the mainstream, the fence that defines what is male and female is, for the most part, holding pretty firm. Though androgyny is having an impact on the way we dress, the gender rules as we know them have been set for a long time.

To the puzzle of how we got here in the first place, both fashion designers and historians single out the changing role of women in society as the catalyst for the fashion conventions that we follow today.

Traci Dix-Williams, a British fashion historian, points the finger at the Victorians.

"There is a very strong feminist belief that many of the clothes were designed to be restrictive to the point where they kept the women in the house," she says of the wide bustles and lacy crinolines that literally prevented women from fitting through the front door.

"Clothing was a great tool when it came to keeping women in their place at that time," she explains of clothes that were almost too beautiful – and definitely too fragile – for women to venture very far.

As to the fancy versus plain looks that dominate male/female fashion, Dix-Williams says in the 17th century, it was the men who were "the peacocks."

"They were the ones with the jewels and the frills and the codpieces and rich colours," she says. "While women were the ones in the background, there to keep the house and produce the children in greys and browns."

In 16th-century Tudor times, male vanity included padding their calves to make their legs look larger and stronger in their tights. This is also when that 1980s power-dressing essential – the shoulder pad – was first popular.

But through the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, men adopted a more staid attire in order to convey the seriousness of business.

It was time to shed the frivolity of ruffled sleeves in the name of commerce and to reinforce their role as the provider and protector of their women. The showy side of their lives, the obvious signs of success, would be expressed instead in the way they dressed their wives.

"Clothes were about self-promotion, the more layers of your wife's dress, the more money you had," Dix-Williams explains.

Add prized lace and even more expensive richly coloured fabrics and the wife was transformed into a canvas with which her rich husband could impress.

Bright colours were derived from natural dies that would fade after just two or three wears. Keeping a woman in bright colours, especially blues and purples and ruby reds, was a badge of the rich.

Fast-forward to today: While many fashion houses still play by those rules – confident that femininity sells – others are revisiting what constitutes male and female looks.

The Japanese have been doing it the best for the longest time according to David Hellqvist, features editor of Androgyny magazine.

"I think the Japanese designers are ahead on this and, more recently, Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme," he says of the designer who dramatically re-tailored men's catwalk fashion. "When he was working with the tailors making the suits, he just kept telling them to keep cutting, and keep cutting and take it in more."

The result was a reinvented menswear label that employed some of the tricks of womenswear designers in cutting a tight silhouette that emphasized a man's body.

Despite the name, Hellqvist says Androgyny is primarily about challenging conventions, be they in art, design or fashion.

He says the magazine likes to explore the "grey tones" between the traditional views of men and women.

"I think there is a great desire for that creativity, everybody is just hungry for it, for a new door to open into what we wear and how we look," he says.

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